Steve Jobs just announced his second medical leave from Apple. Knowing how tightly he is tied to both the company and the job, the problem is likely serious and each time he leaves, the likelihood that he will come back is reduced. The issue for all companies with iconic CEOs is that there really isn't a history of any of them being replaced without the firms taking a big hit. This doesn't mean they don't survive, but the firms tend to take on the personality of the icon and when the icon is gone, they tend to go through a period of corporate soul searching to rediscover what it is they now stand for.
Let's look back at some firms that lost their iconic leaders as a way to look ahead for Apple.
Disney Without Walt
Disney with Walt Disney at its helm peaked with "Wonderful World of Color" in the 1960s and held on to that peak until Walt passed in 1966. People were as pulled to the personality of the man who was bigger than life as they were pulled to his movies and parks. He had a fundamental belief that employees of the parks were like actors and that the parks were a reflection of his imagination. In a way, the parks were movies made real that you could occupy and experience. His core and what made his properties valuable was this blending of imagination and reality, and his ability to bring you into whatever his firm created made the experience truly magical.
After he left, the firm was professionally run and its focus was on the bottom line. Eventually "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," which served as a weekly reminder of all-things-Disney, went away and the firm and its properties ceased being a daily part of family lives. Movie sequels seemed to predominate and the magic seemed to slowly drain out of the property. Internally, long-time loyalists who had been with the parks since they started were quickly replaced with professional managers and the parks spread, losing a little magic each time they were replicated.
Several times Disney had trough financials, but the firm held together and while it doesn't have the impact it once had, through acquisitions like Pixar, it has remained profitable and powerful. But it isn't the icon it once was and likely will never be.
IBM Without Thomas Watson Jr.
Thomas Watson Jr., the son of the founder of IBM, was its iconic leader. Active in politics and aggressive in his beliefs with regard to employee loyalty and customer care, he built a company unlike any other tech company in terms of power, customer loyalty and employee loyalty. He felt strongly that employees were family and that a career at IBM was a lifetime choice. He personally met with large numbers of employees annually, one-on-one, and IBM rose to be the first, most powerful technology company on the mantra that "no one ever lost their job buying from IBM."
After his departure, a series of inside-trained professional managers slowly stripped out the IBM songs, uniforms and eventually the lifetime employment policies to make IBM more like other companies. The managers sold off IBM's annuity assets that protected it from market swings in exchange for short-term profits, and the firm almost failed in the late 1980s resulting in massive layoffs. IBM was recovered by outsiders who came in and cut the company to the bone in order to save it. The end result is certainly one of the most powerful companies in the world, but it is doubtful that IBM will ever again rise to the massively dominant and beloved company it once was.
Unlike Disney and IBM, Apple's model is to bring out hit products and its success rate is unmatched. A good deal of its success is the combination of Steve Jobs' decisions on what the products contain and his ability to present the results in a favorable light. This technique has not been replicated either inside or outside of Apple, and much like the leaders mentioned above, his approaches might not be repeatable. And, as we look back at IBM and Disney, it is likely that Apple management is more interested in getting out from under rules it probably disagrees with than in continuing a model it just as likely doesn't really understand.
You see, Steve Jobs, like Walt Disney and Thomas Watson Jr., is a critical part of Apple's magic and if the company can't clone him, that magic will slowly pass and its product hit rate is likely to fall. That's not to say Apple will fail, because neither Disney nor IBM failed and both are powerful today, but both are also very different and far less "magical." Apple will have a future; it is just likely to have less magic.